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By Paula Ann Solis
Baylor is set to make advances in online learning beginning the spring semester of 2014 with the piloting of virtual classrooms for students.
The university announced June 19 that Baylor will join Semester Online, a consortium of prestigious universities interested in the online version of higher education.
“We must keep our eyes on the horizon to anticipate genuine challenges—and changes,” said Dr. Elizabeth Davis, executive vice president and provost, in her opening letter of the Teaching, Learning & Technology Committee’s June report “Engaging the Future of Higher Education.”
Davis said she asked the Baylor Teaching, Learning & Technology Committee last year to examine the future of online learning and to propose ways Baylor could join the growing trend. The 19 faculty and staff who are part of the committee decided a three-year contract with Semester Online, a program offered by the company 2U, would be best to introduce online learning to Baylor.
“I felt like the universities that were part of this were the highest quality and that, whether you are taking an in-person course or an online course, it should have both rigor and quality, and I think these courses will be this way,” said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and dean of university libraries.
Orr was part of the committee that debated accepting the invitation from Semester Online to become a charter affiliate school and said the technological advances offered by Semester Online through 2U especially interested her as an official in the technology field.
“2U provides universities with the technology, infrastructural support and capital they need to transform on-campus programs into state-of-the-art Web-based programs,” according to the company’s website.
2U normally works with universities interested in offering complete degrees online, specifically at the graduate level, but Monday will mark 2U’s launch of a program separate from these previous goals – Semester Online.
Baylor will join this program for the spring 2014 semester.
It is the first program of its kind because its focus is solely on undergraduates which, Semester Online Executive Vice President and General Manager Andrew Hermalyn said, is what attracted Baylor to this program above all others.
“Selective enrollment, small class sizes and a live class component,” Hermalyn said as he described why Semester Online and Baylor fit perfectly together.
Like Baylor, Semester Online boasts that its class sizes are smaller than their counterparts known as massive open online courses (MOOCs). Some MOOCs such as edX have thousands of students in a given class while Semester Online caps its enrollment at 20 students per course.
Professors from the seven partner schools will be the only ones to teach courses for Semester Online. Those seven partner schools are Boston College, Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.
Baylor, Southern Methodist and Temple University are the only charter affiliate partner schools that are not offering courses on Semester Online but have access to the courses being taught.
“We only partner with schools that are high quality, entrepreneurial and that are looking for ways to expand their offerings on campus,” Hermalyn said.
Aside from class size, Semester Online is different from other popular MOOCs in that they are not free and when students complete the course, it will count as transfer credit.
While this may seem no different from a student enrolling on his or her own and transferring credits, the difference lies in what being part of a partner school means.
Rather than applying directly to any of the seven partner schools, students of the three charter affiliate partners will apply through academic advisers and if they have the required GPA and meet other criteria they will gain admittance for that particular course.
“We have everything from courses in political science and history to business to literature to marketing,” Hermalyn said.
While some courses offered by Semester Online are similar to those offered at Baylor, such as Notre Dame’s The Rise of Christianity, there are courses unique and unfamiliar to Baylor students such as Baseball and American Culture offered by Emory University. This is another aspect of Semester Online that Hermalyn said is unconventional.
“I think what Semester Online is going to offer students is it’s going to expand your college experience and it’s going to allow you opportunities that didn’t exist before,” he said.
Currently Semester Online offers 11 courses and 13 more will be added in spring 2014 when Baylor will pilot the program.
Based on input from focus groups during the Teaching, Learning & Technology Committee’s research, it was decided that the first session of Semester Online should begin on a small scale and until further notice only students with 30 or more credit hours who are also not concurrently enrolled at Baylor may take part in Semester Online.
All courses will be subject to Baylor’s transfer policies. Students interested in learning about Baylor’s relationship with Semester Online can visit baylor.edu/registrar to connect with the Baylor Semester Online Advisor Natalie Terry.